Maria Popova | Opinions

Rise of the Micro-Medici

Photo: Sten Porse. Source: Wikimedia

It's been a polarized year for crowdsourcing. Ever since Jeff Howe coined the term in a 2006 Wired article, cultural buzz about the practice of doling out tasks to large groups of contributors has been on the rise. But as with any new technology — a word Kevin Kelly defines as anything useful the human mind makes — we've been feeling our collective way around the concept, empirically honing what it is — and isn’t — good for. Or, as Kelly puts it, we’ve been enlisting a "pro-action approach" that deems the actual use of a technology the only valid litmus test for its worth. Crowdsourcing has proven its utilitarian value in mechanical, information-based jobs like aggregating crisis information during the Haiti earthquake, pointing local government to neighborhood concerns that need addressing, or organizing the world's knowledge on Wikipedia.

But it's becoming increasingly evident that what crowdsourcing is not good for is evaluating, or worse yet, generating, creative value.

This, of course, is no grand revelation. Most of the creative community seems to concur. Look no further than the recent Gap logo, the tragicomic crowdsourcing debacle that may just be the New Coke of our time. Beaten down by public mockery — which ranged from a snarktastic Twitter feed to a DIY Gap logo maker that went viral — the iconic retailer retired the offender.

There's a reason why the term "creative vision" is used to describe artistic and conceptual inventiveness. Creativity, particularly as it applies to innovation, requires a point of view. Crowdsourcing, by definition, springs from multiple viewpoints. This fundamental disconnect makes crowdsourcing an absurd tool for producing anything that aims to be original. (Something wryly and humorously addressed by one designer's open letter to Gap.)

It's a little bit like building a matchstick house – you certainly need all the matchsticks, but without a blueprint, you'd just end up with a pile of incendiary wood.

Crowdsourcing, however, has become valuable for creative projects in a different way. While efforts to tap the wisdom of crowds may fall flat in bringing creative visions to life, tapping the wallets of crowds has been incredibly successful. Microfunding platforms like Kickstarter, alongside a handful of copycats and competitors, are liberating innovators everywhere from film to industrial design to programming. Just this month, Scott Wilson funded his TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch Watch Kit concept on Kickstarter, raising a staggering $941,718. His idea — a snap-in design that transforms the iPod Nano into a multifunctional timepiece — had so much merit in the eyes of the microfunding community that it raised 6,827 percent more than the original goal of $15,000. LoudSauce allows supporters of causes and nonprofits to buy media space to help their message reach a wider audience and facilitate mainstream awareness. ProFounder enables entrepreneurs to microfund small business ventures; IndieGoGo does the same for independent filmmakers. ArtistsShare and PledgeMusic give artists the means to subsidize tours, shows and installations by sourcing donations directly from fans. Founded by a pair of World Bank and UN Development Fund alums, Kopernik uses the model to connect innovative humanitarian designs and technologies with the communities that would benefit from them, allowing local organizations to take the fulfillment of their needs into their own hands.

This new kind of patronage is essentially a return to the Medici, only in fragmented form via micropayments. An intelligent evolution of crowdsourcing, it preserves the nucleus of a creative endeavor – its singular point of view – while harnessing collective power to bring it to fruition.

Why does crowdfunding work where crowdsourcing fails? Because ideas are cheap and subjective, and money is expensive and objective. As Clay Shirky puts it in Cognitive Surplus, "People don't actively want bad design — it's just that most people aren't good designers.” Asking crowd members to put their money behind someone else's creativity does two things: It forces contributors to be more deliberate in their assessment of what constitutes a good idea, and it generates an absolute measure of merit based on the cumulative contributions of individuals.

This in no way perpetuates the myth of the creative genius who arrives at her Eureka! moment in isolation from the world. (Steven Johnson, in his excellent new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, makes a compelling case for the combinatorial nature of creativity.) It is, rather, an effort to describe an ecosystem with a division of labor — some create and some enable creation — but where yall parts operate in harmony. In the crowdfunding model, there is a mastermind with a vision and an inspirational force breathing executional feasibility into the product of this singular intelligence. Let the micro-Medici rule.

Posted in: Ideas, Product Design, Social Enterprise

Comments [13]

They are two completely different things. The only thing they have in common is that the words start with "crowd". One isn't superior over the other. Can't. They're different platforms for different people for a different purposes. Apples and oranges. There's going to be successes in both concepts but those successes are measured by two separate criteria.

It's the major corporate players trying to participate in social media, save a buck, hop on the trendwagon, and get free press that's undermining the power of crowdsourcing, as shown by the examples above. Allow me to make my case for crowdsourcing.

Mom-and-pop cupcake shop can't afford the major firms to develop their branding and ad campaign. They're not national and the return on a $10,000 logo just doesn't make sense, whereas a $300 crowdSPRING contest may just do the trick. They may get designs deemed "mediocre" by us elitist designers, but they're good-enough and work's just fine, because in the end it's just how the cupcakes tastes anyway. Before crowdsourcing was invented, the little stores were left to ask their cousin's daughter who knew how to use MS Paint to make the logo for them. I'll take "mediocre" over "blindingly bad" any day. Crowdsourcing is great for small businesses.

Crowdfunding at its current state rallies around the individual and is still yet to be a true community, because of it's tool like function. Threadless who've baked crowdsourcing right into their business plan has taken it to a new level by creating a vibrant community. Creating an online community is a challenge and every marketer's dream/nightmare. Threadless did just that resulting in an annual revenue of $30mil+, 1.5mil+ twitter followers and 220,000 facebook fans. They created a rallying space for comfy cute tshirt lovers. Crowdsourcing can create engaged communities.

Wicked problems are daunting and crowdfunding doesn't have the confidence yet to tackle those problems. Crowdfunding a million dollars to cure cancer, still isn't going to cut it, while using the computational power and the time of a million people, might. Wicked problems are just starting to be attempted in a traditional crowdsourcing fashion at places like OpenIdeo. Though it does fall short in some respects with the above mentioned criticism, the confidence is leading to experimentation and they've done a great job of tweaking the usual crowdsourcing process by inviting experts to synthesize the creative power of many, releasing it back out, and taking it back in, in an iterative cycle. The experts facilitate the crowd to attempt a solution for problems worth solving. I'm also looking very forward to Jane McGonigals' Gameful, who recently presented at TED, which uses game mechanics paired with crowdsourcing to solve the Wicked Problems. Crowdsourcing is mature enough to tackle the big problems of the world.

Crowdsourcing builds a great online environment for collaboration, community awareness and engagement. It may not be the next emerging trend, but it's at a point where it's evolving at a healthy pace. Both conceptual approaches have their own place and will hopefully evolve in their own way into something even more wonderful.
Ko Nakatsu

Ko Nakatsu:

I think you raise some valid points, but wouldn't Threadless be more like "crowdfunding"? The "crowd" isn't contributing to the creative process of the t-shirt designs (each designer still owns his own artistic vision); they're just voting on which ones they want to buy ("fund"), which to me is a lot like Kickstarter.

I think part of the issue is also how we define successful creative projects. To reference your small business analogy, if we're just trying to make something presentable, then crowdsourcing can certainly do the job. But it seems to me that success in that case wouldn't be measured so much by whether the owner ends up with a pretty design (quite possible through crowdsourcing), but whether the designer really understood the visual and cultural context of what the small business really about, how the locals perceive them, etc. True, the local designer (or cousin's daughter) may not dig that deep either, but looking for someone who can specifically understand those people, their business, and their audience would be a top priority for me.

In my mind, crowdsourcing's focus on the externals—divorced from a good understanding of context, and lacking the leadership of someone who really understands the client and audience—is its biggest failure.
Peter Lewis

it may also be useful to look at the failures and kickstarter and the successes in crowdsourcing.

many kickstarter successes seem to be about presales - i.e. I get something, probably something very unique and beautiful by paying more or paying earlier. but this big successes around products seem to be the exception, which lots of unfunded projects to go around too. are they bad ideas? not always, but they probably dont offer enough return for mini medicis.

in the product sphere, quirky is another alternative to contribute to and get ideas to market - it certainly benefits from a core inspired ideas, but the naming, design, marketing, etc are evolved by the community. sure lots of the ideas never make it into production, just like many kickstarter ideas dont get funded but they've had a few successes with this model too.

looking at larger projects, angelist.co is worth a look - this is a way to match new companies with potential investors. the ideas often go beyond a single design or product, but cover a range of new business concepts and offerings trying to raise 100s of 1000s of $.

to ko's point above, a next generation of crowdsourcing models has been quietly coming together to tackle bigger problems by finding ways to have structured conversations and different incentive schemes - examples from a post in the wsj today - http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704774604576036013767458044.html.

crowdsourcing and crowdfunding might look like competitive ideas today, but I expect very soon that we will see ideas funded on kickstarter or angellist, that have been designed through a large scale collaboration with "crowds".
Shaun Abrahamson

While I can sympathise with the design community on the dangers of crowdsourcing, especially in the hands of commercial giants and working in the contentious domain of logo design, I tend to disagree that;

"Creativity, particularly as it applies to innovation, requires a point of view. Crowdsourcing, by definition, springs from multiple viewpoints. This fundamental disconnect makes crowdsourcing an absurd tool for producing anything that aims to be original."

Multiple view points, like in any democratic system, has its power and validity as a means for creativity. One of the best music videos of 2010 is a perfect example, one that is far from absurd and comes up high on the scale of originality. I have a sudden flash of nostalgia; Croudsourcing Killed The Video Star.


If you are however taking the rather narrow perspective of crowdsourcing within the process of design then I tend to agree that this rather new word is a trendy façade with added flourishes to spec work and competitions of the like. And I believe that for the majority, designers are against spec work.


mark webster

There are lots of freelancers who could do those same priced jobs. The difference is that the freelancer would be able to discuss with the client at length, study their business, present proposals, and refine. Crowdsourcing is like having multiple doctors diagnose a problem based on what a patient from a remote village posted online. Once in awhile, luck might happen and the problem is solved. However, without being able to conduct actual tests (research), the Doctor is unable to provide the best service, nor the most accurate, or even the right one. Crowdsourcing creative work does the exact same thing to a client.

There was a creative lead in the Johnny Cash Project. It still had a single expert (the crucial part here) point of view.
Andrei Gonzales

Andrei, we are on the same wave length. I'm not too sure though about the role of the one creative lead. 'Creativity' is the operative word here and in my reading it is also a crucial part of the crux of the matter. Points of view are always constructed upon many - we are not the sole beholder of a point of view. For the Johnny Cash Project, there was an essential technical lead and not a creative lead in the traditional sense of design. This technical lead gave way to an open system that enabled the expression of many (the crowd).
In my view and I think this is where I am in agreement with the above text, crowdsourcing within a design perspective is just a dressed up means for spec work and that is its danger when used as such. It can however be used to great 'creative' use and is far from absurd.
Mark Webster

The meaning of the word continues to be blurred by companies who want to hijack it.

This is an example of crowdsourcing:
Presenting a number of examples to a crowd and asking for feedback on the merits of each.

This is a not an example of crowdsourcing:
Asking a crowd to produce said examples for free, i.e., Crowdspring, 99designs, LogoTournament, MycroBurst, etc., etc.

Companies that turn a profit from designers working for free haven't, as they claim, made design accessible to "mom and pop shops." Design was always accessible. It's simply a matter of finding a designer to fit a specific budget, as Andrei Gonzales rightly mentions in his comment above.
David Airey

I'm still of the mind that The Gap was more in control of that logo situation than the Twitter aesthetes give them credit for. That said, The Gap logo debacle is actually great example of crowdsourcing. The new logo wasn't crowdsourced. They got more reaction than they probably wanted, but that company crowdsourced more chatter than you could ever buy.

I'm a fan of crowdfunding.. I love Kickstarter. Perhaps 2011 will give us new subcategories of crowdsourcing. As designers, many of us grumble about spec work, contests etc but crowdsourcing does have its uses.

I think the crux is that crowdsourcing does work if you're looking for a range of equivalent inputs to get a range of responses and can engage an audience. That works. frog design wants your photos and impressions of Hawaii. That makes sense and sounds enjoyable (motivating) to participate and share in. You can bring the same input as others and your own value to the table.

Crowdsourcing to generate a logo or do some directed work in some way is totally different. It's competitive, it de-motivates people with real talent, it could seem arbitrary or unfair. Most importantly, it challenges our conception of work/effort in ways we don't like. Why should I submit a logo if there's a million other ones and they probably want a bad one anyways? That's not motivating, fun, etc.

2011 - at least two different ways to look at crowds. That's what I want from Santa. Merry Xmas!
Peter A Jacobson

When it comes to most digital tools having access to all this 'free' content comes at a cost. If mom&pop want to save some bucks they'd better have the time to wade through a deluge of mediocracy to choose the 'right' logo. Of course they'll also need to know how to evaluate which is best for reproduction etc and be able to make objective decisions. Guiding clients through the design process is what 'good' designers offer. Working with them... not for some kind of shallow beauty pagent. Bottom line, Can they afford to look cheap?
Troy Matheson

@Ko: Indeed, they are completely different things, but it seems you're deviating from the context in which the two are being discussed here: Design and innovation. To Peter's point above, Threadless is indeed an example of crowdfunding, not crowsourcing by the creative-point-of-view definition: While users do vote on designs and, though their votes, help fund them, each design remains the sole creative product of a single designer's mind. Thank you for the reminder, though – I should've mentioned Threadless as one of the foremost examples of crowdfunding that works.

@Peter: You nail, quite eloquently, the chronic contextual disconnect of crowdsourcing. I couldn't agree more.

@Shaun: angelist.co looks quite intriguing. But if anything, I think it makes the case for crowdfunding in that there's a curatorial element to the platform. The pitches are being hand-vetted by the team behind the platform, much like applications are meticulously vetted by Kickstarter. (Crowdsourcing, by definition, is the very opposite – everyone gets to have an opinion and contributions are not weighted for merit.) You raise an interesting point, however – (how) will, the two converge in the future?

@Mark: to Andrei's point, the Johnny Cash Project was indeed the brainchild of a single creative mind. As it happens, my friend Aaron Koblin's. Aaron is an absolute genius, one of the most wildly creative and thoughtful people I know, and while he's a big fan of crowdsourcing micro-tasks via Amazon's Mechanical Turk (as he did in his brilliant Sheep Market project and A Bicycle Built for 2000), let's not forget the very use of these tools is just an executional part of the core creative concept, orchestrated by his singular point of view as an artist and experimenteur. Each person reproducing a single frame of Cash's video per instructions she or he was given was not performing a creative act in the sense of bringing an original idea to life. Aaron, however, in his conception of using multiple user-drawn single frames to stitch together a remarkable animated video, was. You are absolutely wrong that Aaron was a "technical lead" and not a creative one.

@David: Regardless of whether or not I agree with your distinction, making a case for what's essentially a focus group – reviled today as a dinosaur of wildly misleading, flawed and ultimately lowest-common-denominator market research – hardly makes crowdsourcing appear like a sensible idea.

@Peters: Cheers to that!
Maria Popova

My argument is that the two platforms are completely different and squashing them together does both platforms a disservice. Though similar in concept to harness crowdpotential (a concept that's been around since the 1800's), they both have their benefits and have their own issues. I'm not an advocate solely for crowdsourcing, I'm merely requesting they both have their own breathing room to evolve on their own without muddying the terminologies or being compared to each other.

For example, your use of Wikipedia to write this opinion piece is an excellent example of where a beloved crowdsourcing resource, fails. You stated that "Crowdsourcing" was coined by Howe of wired, as Wikipedia suggests, but this is slightly misleading. Wikipedia (the US version) fails to mention Mark Robinson, editor of wired, who coined the term together with Howe. Crowdsourcing isn't always accurate, doesn't always produce the best idea (as mentioned in the comments), lacks expert participation and scary for any industry (as any form of outsourcing might be), but it is certainly not inferior to crowdfunding, which has a completely separate focus and objective.

Peter, Maria - Threadless (and the founder) self-identifies itself with 'crowdsourcing' and have never considered themselves to be a rep of the crowdfunding movement. Here's his blog and take on the issue:
So I still stand by the argument with this example that crowdsourcing can be very innovative.

Peter, Andrei - I'll be the first in line to fight for meaningful designs through careful research and development. The reality though is that not all projects need that level of depth in the output. Some of my internal projects in the past have been $500,000+ just on the research and analysis (quant, qual, exp, the usual stuff). Mom&pop shop would certainly benefit from that kind of design approach but it's just not feasible. Let's go to reality of what they can afford. $400. Half of that would be burned in meeting costs. If a freelancer can take on a job doing a logo for $400, can they really afford to educate anyone on the complexities of design research, branding strategy, cultural relevance, or effective communication, and execute on each of those components, while producing quality work? Ideally, yes. In this reality, no. In theory it's wonderful, the challenge is on how to put it into practice. My hope is that as crowdsourcing evolves, the requesters do become educated and start to demand richer more meaningful designs.

Ko Nakatsu

@Maria Popova

I said that I wasn't sure about the one creative lead in this project. I'm still wondering about this point to be honest. (http://portfolio.chrismilk.com/#mi=1&pt=0&pi=3&p=-1&a=0&at=0).

In your opinion, the act of creation is firmly linked with the beholder of the original idea. To the extent that there seems no more room for 'creativity' behond that stage. Place a score of Mozart on any number of music stands. If you have no one to play, it ain't gonna be so genius.
Mark Webster

Lots of great points above. I had co-founded a crowdfunding/crowdsourcing platform called Cameesa a while back. We had people create T-shirt designs (crowdsourcing) and then had people put money into the ones they'd like to see go to print (crowdfunding). The reason why weren't able to spark the growth we wanted is one this article highlights. That being quality of the design product. This quality is based on individual vision and some form curation.

I do agree with Ko as referenced in his comments, crowdsourcing is not better than crowdfunding (and Vice Versa). They are different beasts. The one key success factor that applies to both crowdfunding and crowdsourcing is some form of quality control or curatorship.

Threadless allows people to post and vote on designs that should go to print. The ultimate call however is made by a Threadless Creative Director. Similarly, Kickstarter is an invite only platform and the people submitting projects are creative professionals not the general public. In addition, projects need to be approved by Kickstarter moderator before the go live on the site.

Curation is what leads to good quality and is the ultimate success factor in both crowdsourced and crowdfunded scenarios.

Viktor Bezic

Jobs | November 14